Indian Theatre: Past Perfect, Future Tense

Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee
Professor and Head of the Institute
Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC)
Sanchar Marg, Dhenkanal-759001, Orissa

Theatre in India has a tradition going back to at least 5000 years. It began with Rigvedic dialogue hymns during the Vedic period.The earliest book on dramaturgy anywhere in the world Natya Shastra, i.e., the grammar or the holy book of theatre by Bharat Muni (approximately between 2000 B.C. and 4th Century A.D.) provides detailed treatise on drama, performance and visual art form. It talks about rasa and using human body in kinetic form. A long span of time and practice is needed for any art or activity to form its rules and notifications. Therefore, it can be said with assurance that to have a book like Natya Shastra, the Indian theatre must have begun long, long before that.

Theatre in India started as a narrative form with a distinct story line. Besides acting, reciting, singing and dancing were integral elements of the Indian theatre almost from the beginning. Theatre in India has encompassed all the other forms of literature and fine arts into its physical presentation: literature, mime, music, dance, movement, painting, sculpture and architecture - all mixed into one and being called natya or theatre in English. This emphasis on narrative elements and integration of different performing and plastic art forms made Indian theatre super sensory right from the beginning.

Hindu theorists from earliest times talk of two theories: lokadharmi and natya dharmi1Lokadharmi refers to replicating common men and women and their behavioural pattern. Natyadharmi refers to symbolic, stylised representation. Both the forms found expression in different format throughout the country, the former in folk form and the later in classical form.

Devendra Raj Ankur talks about the conceptual differences between the western and Indian theatre2:  The western philosophy of life is deep-rooted in the belief that there is no life after death whereas the Indian philosophy, especially the Hindu doctrine, sees life in continuity, i.e., there is no end even after death. Life keeps on moving as a circular activity. Theatre in the West presents life as it is whereas in India it presents life as it should be. In other words, this can be explained like this: Life in the West has been portrayed nearer to realism whether in theatre or other arts but in India it has been illustrated more in idealistic terms.

Indian Theatre, roughly, can be divided into three distinctive but overlapping phases: the classical period, the traditional period and the modern period.

Phase I, the classical period includes the writing and practice of theatre up to about 1000 A.D., almost based on rules, regulations and modifications handed by Natya Shastra. They apply to the writing of plays, performance spaces and conventions of staging plays. Playwrights such as Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudraka, Vishakhadatta and Bhavabhuti contributed to a great measure through their dramatic pieces in Sanskrit. They based their plots on the epics, history, folk tales and legends. The audience was already familiar with the story. Therefore, a theatre language required a visual presentation through gestures, mime and movement. The actor was supposed to be well-versed in all the fine arts. In a way, it was a picture of total theatre. The noted German playwright and director Brecht evolved his theory of 'Epic Theatre' from these sources.

Phase II involves theatre based on oral traditions. It was performed from about 1000 A.D. onwards upto 1700 A.D. and beyond. Emergence of this kind of theatre is linked with the change of political set up in India as well as the coming into existence of different regional languages in all parts of the country. Several regional languages emerged during this period. As the languages were new, it was too early to expect any writing in those languages. That is why this whole period is known as folk or traditional, i.e., theatre being handed over from generation to generation through an oral tradition. Another major change in the domain of presentation also took place with this kind of traditional theatre. The classical theatre based on Natya Shastra was much more sophisticated and rigid in its form. It aimed at an elite audience with a heightened sense of aesthetics. Folk or traditional theatre evolved out of rural roots. It aimed at unbridled entertainment without much attention to the grammar and rules. Though folk theatre used music, mime, movement, dance and narrative elements, it was more simple, immediate and improvisational even to the extent of being contemporary. Moreover, whereas the classical theatre was almost similar in its presentation in all parts of India at a particular time, the traditional theatre took to different presentational methods 3. Another factor that contributed to the change was invasion. During the Middle Ages, the Indian subcontinent was invaded a number of times. Unlike in most other places of the world, the invaders here stayed on and made the sub continent their home. This played a major role in shaping of Indian culture and heritage as medieval India experienced a grand fusion with the invaders from the Middle East and Central Asia. It impacted the theatre form too both thematically and presentation wise. What emerged was a kaleidoscope of performing arts, known by the umbrella term folk theatre.

India presents a colourful assortment of Folk Theatre. Variously known as the Jatra (Bengal, Orissa and Eastern Bihar), Tamasha (Maharashtra), Nautanki (Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab), Bhavai (Gujarat), Yakshagana (Karnataka), Therubuttu (Tamil Nadu), folk theatre reaches out to a large cross-section of the population. The decline of Sanskrit Drama saw the emergence of the Folk Theatre in various regional languages from the 14th and through the 19th century. Maintaining the basic conventions like stage preliminaries, the sutradhara (the narrator), the vidushak (the buffoon), opening prayer song, etc it achieved a quick mass appeal4.

In several fold theatre form the actors perform in the open with gangways attached to the make-shift stage. This helps immensely since the actors frequently converse with the audience in the course of the play. Audience participation is an essential part of Indian folk theatre. The stage is often a huge empty space which the actors deftly
manipulate with their dialogues and symbolic gestures. Loud music, dance, elaborate use of make-up, masks, and singing chorus are its hallmarks.  Folk plays provide a valuable insight into the local dialect, dress, attitude, humour and wit of the regions in which they are staged. Although mythological and medieval romances are their main thrust, folk theatre acquires a timeless appeal by improvising with symbolic relevance to the current socio-political happenings.

Phase III of theatre in India was again linked with a change in the political set up. The time span of about 200 years under the British rule brought the Indian theatre into direct contact with the western theatre. For the first time in India, the writing and practice of theatre was geared fully towards realistic or naturalistic presentation. Realism or naturalism was not totally absent in our tradition. However, in this phase, realism got an extra dimension. The usual storyline underwent a change. It was no more woven around big heroes and gods, but had become a picture of common man. It portrayed a new and immediate reality. This phase also saw theatre used as an instrument of protest and mass uprising against alien rule. To resist, the British Government imposed "Dramatic Performances Act" in 1876. From the latter half of the 19th century, theatre in India experienced both horizontal and vertical growth. But ironically there were inner conflicts over several key questions like: a. the purpose of theatre: entertainment or education, b. the form: realistic or stylistic, c. the narrative style: Indian or western, d. the funding: state-sponsored or audience-paid. The conflict grew after independence.

The theatre in contemporary India is in a strange state. It encompasses a combination of the three different phases of its evolution. And it faces multiple challenges.


i. Identity

With multiple theatrical forms in multiple languages, contemporary Indian theatre is in search of its true identity. That in a way is the biggest strength of the theatre in India, and also its biggest weakness. The diversity makes it different to determine the identity of an Indian Theatre. When the theatre was being performed in one single language like Sanskrit, it had a national identity of its own. But today the picture is completely different. India, being a multi-cultural nation, cannot be associated with a unique trend and feature in its theatres.  In India, the concept of National Theatre has to be seen purely in regional terms. All the regions have their own language, history and culture and their theatre is also deeply rooted in those circumstances. Noted theatre personality KN Panikkar writes: "We see that the performing arts of our country even while maintaining their own specialities and the differences in the details of structuring related to the form, operational style and other aspects, evince at the same time a semblance, inter dependence and interconnection. The unity of a well defined goal has never been affected by the multiplicity of regional traditions."5

ii. Livelihood

Theatre in India has never been professional in the true sense of the word. Artists associated with the production and presentations of theatre have not been entirely dependant on it for their livelihood. It has always been a passion, at best a vocation but hardly a profession. Though it seems that the theatre in India has been a continuous activity, yet in reality it has not been so. Theatre has by and large been performed as part of festivals or such other occasions. Even the professional theatre groups perform for about six to eight months a year.  In the rest of the year, the people remain engaged either in agriculture or other vocations. They are involved in some job or the other during daytime and only in the evenings they come to rehearse or perform. But this is changing. India is moving away from agrarian economy. People need to give more time on a daily basis to earn their livelihood. Theatre on the other hand has become more demanding in terms of skill-level. It requires artists to invest more time and energy, which the artists need to earn their livelihood. This conflict could be resolved if the theatre persons earn their livelihood through theatre. This could be done in two ways. One, by state sponsorship and two, by making people pay directly.

Both have problems. If the State sponsors theatre, there is an apprehension of the State appropriating the creative freedom of theatre and using it for its own purpose.

If theatre is made to survive and make money out of common people, there could problems related to the aesthetics. When theatre has to survive on money collected from the viewers, the obvious aim is to gather more audience. The easiest way to achieve that is to play to the gallery, to cater to the 'want' of audience. In the process of attracting more audience, it targets 'lowest common denominator' and aesthetics is compromised.

i. Emergence of other and more remunerative performing art platform

Over the years, several performing art platforms have emerged besides theatre. Some of the platforms have become financially more remunerative and socially more attractive; and for some emotionally more satisfying. Hence there has been an exodus from theatre to other performing art platforms. The exodus from the theatre to films is not a new phenomenon. But of late, television with its ever increasing reach and growth has attracted many from the theatre. As a result, theatre activities have suffered a severe setback in the last quarter century or so.

Contemporary Indian theatre has to face and win the challenges in order to survive. There is, however, a sign of change for the better. The situation has started changing slowly again in recent times. The audience appears to be coming back to theatre again to experience the super sensory pleasure as unlike in film or television, theatre connects directly with the audience. The civil society appears to be ready and willing to fund theatre. The Indian State appears to be helping theatre without imposing its agenda. Indian theatre may just survive the turmoil and continue to enthral the audience like it has been doing for the last 5000 years.

2. Indian Theatre: Inheritance, Transitions and Future options, PIB Feature
3. There is, however, a pattern. All the folk and traditional forms in northern India are mainly vocal, i.e., singing and recitation-based like Ramlila, Rasleela, Bhand Nautanki and Wang without any complicated gestures or movements and elements of dance.
KN Panikkar, 'Indian Theatre- Post Independence', Canfest 2011, Souvenir , Paradeep, Orissa, p-15


   Published on 15/09/2011

 Source: E-mail 15/09/2011

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